Saturday, March 28, 2009

Earth Hour Post - TCO Models for Sustainability

One of the controversial environmental topics I like to bring up is solar power. While naive (but well meaning) environmentalists support solar technology (for mass consumption in it's current state), they don't realize that more energy (in the form of oil) is consumed to create a solar panel than will ever be extracted from it.

Also, many "environmentally" friendly models are simply offsets of other more polluting or less sustainable practices.

As a corollary of my previous post on this topic, as with any strategic endeavour that wishes to succeed (not just on moral grounds but also on more pragmatic and physical terms), I believe it is necessary to take a more all encompassing total cost of ownership (TCO) approach. That is to say that non-sustainable processes cannot be "green washed" by offsetting the true environmental costs (with striking similarly to NIMBY).

Case in point, solar panels may be "green" with no emissions where they are installed, but they are tremendously inefficient for their purpose. NASA puts solar panels on it's space craft because it can provide a light weight, steady stream of power with the majority of its complexity and drawbacks offset off the actual device and doesn't need a complicated external fueling source (such as gasoline with atmosphere or batteries).

In deciding if something is environmentally friendly (through and through), a more cradle to grave to cradle approach is needed which encompasses the many definitions of sustainability. There are even some European counties leading in policy innovation in these areas (yes, this article was written in 2001, and we wouldn't *DREAM* of implementing something so bold here in North America).

Also, in awareness for Earth hour, I'm putting this post up as my last activity before I shut down all electronic devices I have for an hour between 8:30 PM and 9:30 PM.

Aside: Note, that "Earth Hour" is actually in Ontario's off peak hour (and by extension, most people's similar behaviour pattern) for energy consumption so we are actually saving the least amount of power possible in an hour. For Earth Hour to have maximum potential (and exposure), it probably would have been best to execute this hour during peak hours aka (7 to 11am or 5 to 8pm on a Winter weekday or 11am to 5 pm Summer weekday).


Anonymous said...

Did you know that if a new volcano blows for one day it will completly negate any attempt to control global warming by humans for the year? Human caused global warming is almost zero!!! The earth is changing because that is what it does. Stop wasting your time. Try population control if you must, that would solve all kinds of problems.

Joshua Wong said...

That is an interesting point, but I would offer that there are some additional points to consider:

- What is the frequency of new volcano eruptions per year (that expel pollutants in the air?
- Even if this is true (and those eruptions are relatively frequent), it doesn't necessarily negate our responsibility for our contribution (while eruptions may contribute to pollution at large on a global scale, our pollution could be perceived as more concentrated when you consider that it is relatively localized).

As I was focusing more on resource consumption rather than global warming in this particular post, I would agree that over consumption is the cause of many of our problems (not just environmental), but something about your proposed solution of population control and particular perspective gives me reason for a moments pause.

Nonetheless, you have raised enough good points to make me want to go out and do more homework on the subject.

We North Americans have a nasty habit of over consuming approximately 10x more than most of our international neighbours (I'm as guilty as any). In running hotels, I've heard stories of my colleagues budgeting water and electricity consumption on other island or remote resorts (as those resources are limited in areas) and being blown away by the consumption of North American guests.

Just because we can doesn't mean we should, and (though hardly perfect as I point out) I think that is part of the message of Earth Hour.

Suziesaurus said...

Interesting comment 'Anonymous'.

I think to say that it is not worth doing because some other contributing factor contributes negatively in your endeavors is very short sighted.

I look at it in terms of math.

You are bringing up the very popular logic that:
1 (your contribution) - 1 (volcano eruption) = 0 (no impact)

When it could also be looked at like this:
0 (your contribution) - 1 (volcano eruption)= -1 (we are worse off)

I think it is definitely worth continuous research & re-evaluation as it is hard to tell these days what our actions are actually contributing, but at least with good intentions we can be led to the correct path.

Suziesaurus said...

Is there room for further advancements in solar panel technology to reduce the amount of oil consumed to in their creation?

Josh said...

I'm sure there is... As I'm sure there is room for further efficiency in energy collection from solar cells (looking at both sides of the equation), but look at the model:

Let's use a resource that requires an incredibly long time under super high pressure to create an object that takes energy out of "thin air".

Intuitively, there's only so much you can do on either side to improve the efficiency of energy collection of the final product and, conversely, energy use in the manufacturing process.

Anonymous said...

Feel free to ignore this comment as I don't have any data on hand..

You're wrong about solar panels. The energy consumed in making a solar panel is LESS than the energy that is produced over the lifetime of that panel.

Now like I said, I don't have any data to post, but where's yours?

The energy input to output ratio for current solar panel technology is definitely not as good as that of oil. That is oil's advantage. You get a lot of energy for very little work. "It just spills out of the ground".

To think that solar panels aren't a net energy gain is like not believing in evolution.

Joshua Wong said...

Funny, I was just about to post a correction. I met up with a friend of mine yesterday, Avery Yuen, who's a PhD candidate at McMaster working on plastic photovoltaic cells (solar cells) and he corrected me on my view of solar cells.

He mentioned that solar cells have been net energy gain since the 70's and that the "energy" payback period of a solar cell is about 1.5 years.

I stand corrected. While I'll have to read more of his research and do more homework it, I was simply trying to make a point for TCO to understand the true costs of our decisions. Often (as the Story of Stuff points out), costs are often externalized to hide their true totals.

However, I would caution against comparing it to not believing in evolution. In the world of energy and entropy, I'm usually very skeptical of processes in general which claim to be net energy gain.

I would surmise that we are currently experiencing non-zero sum gains relative to the environment when it comes to energy innovation because we are currently inefficiently harvesting it.